In my part of the world, gardening season has begun in earnest. Seeds that were planted and buried underground are now beginning to arise, thin green shoots, tiny leaves and the promise that there will be a bountiful harvest.
The ancient feast of Pentecost celebrated by the nation of Israel was a celebration of harvest. The weeks of sowing were completed and now it was time to reap the gifts of the land. Pilgrims would come from all over to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple and celebrate their bounty.
For Christians, the season of Pentecost represents the movement of the Spirit out to the whole world. It is considered the birthday of the Christian community—a community that would begin with Jews and come to include Samaritans, Gentiles and all those from the remotest parts of the earth.
That the Spirit would be poured out during this Hebrew festival is no coincidence. Jewish pilgrims from many different lands would gather for this feast. The book of Acts records the events surrounding the momentous day: the violent wind from heaven, the appearance of tongues of fire, and the miraculous gift of languages uttering the praise of God. Those Jewish pilgrims who had come from far and wide were astounded to hear their native languages spoken by common, Jewish peasants. These were the languages representing every region of the known world. The harvest of Pentecost was not just a harvest of crops, but of peoples—peoples far beyond the boundaries of Jerusalem.
And this is exactly what Jesus had promised would happen with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The good news of the Messiah would go out beyond the walls of Israel to the “remotest parts of the earth.” What is often not realized—as modern people living in a pluralistic and multicultural world—is that taking the gospel to the remotest parts of the earth would have been unexpected news for those who believed the Messiah was only for Israel. Pentecost is the sign that Jesus is the Messiah for the whole world.
To understand why this promise of Jesus was so radical, one must understand how religious Jews viewed Gentiles in the first century. Gentiles were unclean and pious Jews were to have no dealings with them. Jesus was often criticized for ministering to Gentiles or to Samaritans—who practiced a syncretistic version of Judaism—by the religious leaders of his day. This background also gives understanding for a conflict in the earliest Christian community in which the Hellenistic Jews (Jews from Greece) were angry at the native Hebrews for overlooking their widows in the serving of food.(1) Jews from outside of Israel were not always afforded treatment as equals.
But, the promise of Pentecost and the movement of the Spirit would push outward even further. In the strange vision of a great sheet covered with unclean animals that appeared to the disciple Peter, as recorded in Acts 10, Peter is commanded to “kill and eat” what would have defiled him according to Jewish law. Understandably, Peter protests; “By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean!” This was not merely a protest against a new dietary law; Peter could not conceive of the movement of the gospel to those formerly considered unclean. The narrative tells the reader that at the same time of this vision Cornelius, a Roman solider, was praying—praying as it turned out for Peter, his reluctant evangelist.
As a result of this vision, Peter later declares about the Gentiles, “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the one who fears God and does what is right is welcome to God. The word which God sent to the sons of Israel, preaching peace through Jesus Christ…of him all the prophets bear witness that through his name everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins.”(2)
Peter ministered to those who were considered outside the bounds of God’s grace. And when he returned to Jerusalem, the Jews took issue with him over his “eating with the uncircumcised.” Peter explained the events and the Jews eventually declared, “God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life.” The gospel had pushed outward beyond the walls of Jerusalem! In the words of the ancient Hebrew prophet Joel: “In the last days, God says, I will pour forth my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, and your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams” (Joel 2:28-32).
The season of Pentecost asks all to consider the God who called Peter, and later Paul (who was Saul of Tarsus a self-described “Hebrew of Hebrews”) to be “apostles to the Gentiles.” This was a God who beckoned them to go beyond safe borders to those places and peoples deemed beyond the reach of the promises and plans of that God. Whether or not we acknowledge the season of Pentecost, we might wonder about all those we might be tempted to consider “Judeans or Samarians” or those “who dwell in the remotest parts of the earth.” The same Spirit who changed the world by changing the hearts and minds of a handful of disciples beckons still, pushing us outward beyond our own borders into the wideness of grace.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the writing and speaking team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) See Acts 6:1.
(2) Acts 10:34-36, 43.